I was eagerly anticipating my visit to MKG to see the latest show, a retrospective of Vivian Maier’s photographic oeuvre, only discovered in 2007. Her story is a dramatic one. She was a nanny in New York and Chicago, who led a dual life as an obsessive photographer. The archive of her prolific work was auctioned off, having been stored in a Chicago storage locker, when she was no longer able to afford the payments. This exciting discovery was made just two years before Maier’s death in 2009, she was born in 1926.
Having previously watched the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, I had formed some ideas about the life and work of this extraordinary, hugely talented and largely self-taught photographer. I wanted to find out more and was confident, having seen the two previous excellent exhibitions at MKG, celebrating the work of two other under celebrated female 20th century artists, Laura Knight and Ingrid Pollard, that this show would be interesting and thought provoking. I was not disappointed.
The selection of images, black and white and colour and also some film and audio recordings cannot have been an easy task as the archive comprised around 150,000 items, spanning 45 years of work. The curator, Anne Morin, has judiciously selected 146 images, mainly street scene vignettes and portraits shot in both New York and Chicago from the 1950’s to 1970’s and predominantly black and white images.
I was surprised to learn about Maier’s early life, usefully chronicled in the exhibition, as I had made certain assumptions about her as a quintessentially American photographer and a reclusive person. In fact, although she was born in New York, her parents were European immigrants, her mother French and her father Austrian and she spent her early childhood in France, eventually returning to France to sell a property she had inherited. She also spent a period travelling extensively around Europe, as well as America and Canada.
These biographical details interested me and informed my view of her as a flaneuse, seemingly unobtrusively capturing and chronicling eclectic aspects of urban American life. The persona of a family nanny, accompanied on many of her photographic expeditions by her charges, enabled her to traverse New York and Chicago and engage with whoever caught her eye, rich and poor, particularly the latter as her work reveals a profound empathy with the marginalised and dispossessed.
Certainly, there are photographs that show an eye for architectural detail; they are technically highly accomplished and beautifully composed but, for me, these are not her most striking works. I find her particular skill is shown in the photos depicting people, often children, in these urban settings and offering images that are characterised by subtle detail and mystery. There are stories that the viewer can infer from these enigmatic, poignant and sometimes confrontational images. She interrogates the psycho-geography of the cities that provide her subject matter.
Although Maier is undoubtedly an enigma, she does reveal much about herself in her choice and treatment of the subjects that she selects for forensic, but also sympathetic, scrutiny. I find it ironic that a nanny in charge of children from wealthy families should majorly focus on children from clearly impoverished backgrounds, whom she depicts with such compassion and empathy. For example, a photo of a young, scruffy, rather grubby girl juxtaposes the frontal close up image of the girl with the background of an up-market haberdashery shop displaying gloves. The little girl’s face is streaked with dirt and on closer inspection we can see tears and yet she stands, arms crossed, in a confrontational pose. It is a poignant, touching, unsentimental image. Another image I found arresting and affecting is of two small “tear away” boys who look both tough and vulnerable and must have been worlds away from the milieu in which Maier operated as a nanny. She obviously somehow gained the trust of these children to allow her to take these telling photographs.
There are other images in the exhibition where it is not so clear that she sought or gained permission to take the photographs. For example, there is a desperately sad, poignant image of a homeless man, not facing the camera, but bent over in a foetal position. In another image her focus is on the legs and feet of a woman, elegantly shod, and next to her a small child wearing slightly scuffed boots and wrinkled leggings and, in a typically Maier detail, the child is shown clinging on to the mother’s skirt.
Maier can find expression and poetry in even the smallest of details and she would seem to have a fascination with legs. In one of her colour photographs, she depicts a park bench, painted bright red and yellow and we see a woman lying on the bench. We do not see her face nor upper body but the little detail of her scuffed shoes lends itself to imagined possible narratives. She wears a bright blue skirt; we see a few inches of this above her knees. It is a quirky, almost playful image, provoking first a smile but then a deeper reflection about the woman. The green of the park background makes the image a pleasing one, both in terms of the colour contrasts and the composition. Maier’s images always repay a close and considered examination.
In yet another image, the issue of the consent of the subject is particularly called into question as it shows the female subject in both an unflattering and intimate light. It depicts a middle-aged woman in a changing room and the picture is taken from behind the woman and shows her exposed and vulnerable in her underwear, her flesh bulging and escaping the confines of the garment. The viewer certainly feels like a voyeur looking at images like these. In Maier’s defence, it should be stressed that she had kept her work largely private, as far as we know, and indeed did not even have the money nor facilities to print out most of her work. Many of her images were therefore unseen by her. In her summation of the exhibition and her evaluation of Maier’s legacy and place in the canon of twentieth century photography, the curator draws attention to these ethical considerations that are exposed when we examine Maier’s work. It would be a huge loss, however, if the public did not get to see this unique photographic talent.
On one level I have the impression of Maier as a rather private, shy individual and so I was fascinated by a relatively large number of her self – portraits, displayed throughout the exhibition. Many of these are highly stylised, using images within images, deploying frames, mirrors, window panes, metallic surfaces, a still life arrangement of her clothing and conjuring up mystery and ambiguity through the use of reflections and shadows. These comprise some of her most experimental and innovative works. The impulse behind this relentless self-scrutiny is perhaps puzzling as she appeared to be without any personal vanity, not at all self-promotional and indeed indifferent to recognition. She did not take these photographs for public consumption.
I particularly liked the image of her clearly defined by her craft which opens the exhibition. There is technical experimentation but the lasting impression of her is of a youthful professional, focused intently on her obsession of photography. Of the other images that I have selected two experiment with shadows; the first one uses reflective ‘gazing balls’, where her reflection seems to float in the middle of her shadow; the second uses colour and projects her shadowy image on to a buttercup meadow. These shadowy presences suggest that effectively her craft was seminal to her identity and they signify more about her in terms of self-portraiture than a more straightforward attempt of formal, posed likeness. The coloured image is a charming, quirky and surprising image. The final self-portrait in the show is a striking, ambiguous still life of just her dark unfussy, utilitarian coat with her distinctive red hat. It is an image of absences, poignant and very typically reflective of Maier’s lack of ego and vanity. It felt fitting to display this image in the final room as it suggests a summation of her art in terms of the notion of the unobtrusive flaneuse, who is defined by her work in observing life around her and herself in relation to it.
This arresting and thought-provoking exhibition runs at the MKG until the end of September 2022 and I would urge anyone with an interest in 20th century photography and/or a very particular visual perspective on the streets and people of urban New York and Chicago between the 1950’s and 1970’s to visit at least once. There is much to see and every image has a worthy place in this exhibition; I was struck by the consistently high standard of her work. The documentation of time and place, with the wealth of detail, is striking, but so too is the humanity evident in her treatment of the individuals she captures on film. It has a special beauty and style that impresses and the images stay in the imagination even after leaving the exhibition. It has left me wanting to see more of her work and learn more about her and that is certainly the marker of a successful exhibition.
July 29th 2022